Like every other writer I know, I’m regularly asked if I draw plots or characters from real life. It’s not an easy question to answer, at least not without sounding unconvincing or weirdly shifty. Saying you don’t “think up” plots inevitably produces more questions, to which I find myself muttering stuff about them “emerging” or “presenting themselves”, and sounding as if I mean that they lurk in bushes. And when I deny basing characters on real-life people, honesty compels me to add that humans do broadly fall into recognisable types. Then if I add, as I generally do, that the plots of my Finfarran novels tend to emerge from the series’ extant characters, it produces a vicious circle and makes matters worse. And just saying “no, never” sounds rude.
Anyway, the fact is that, when it comes to creativity, the truth is usually nuanced, and the norm is almost always subject to change.
I don’t base characters on people I meet and when I sat down to write The Library at the Edge of the World, the first Finfarran novel, I was concerned not to base Hanna Casey, my protagonist, on myself. She’s a local librarian, raised in rural Ireland, who emigrated to London in her twenties and returned home years later with her stroppy teenage daughter, having discovered that her English husband had been a serial cheat since she married him. When that book and its sequel came out, I spent way too much time telling interviewers that, while I’m Irish, I wasn’t born in a west coast village and, though I went to London and married in my twenties, I’m childless and my English husband is nothing like Hanna Casey’s. But in hindsight I can see that I gave Hanna my own love of books, art, design and buildings, as well as my writer’s habit of analysing her own and other people’s choices and motivations. So – since denial, however truthful, can sound boring and defensive – I now tend to lead with what we share.
The plot of The Transatlantic Book Club, the latest Finfarran novel, presented itself in a way that, for me, was unique. A few years ago, in a gift shop, I saw a greeting card which had a picture of women in formidable hats and the caption ‘My book club can beat up your book club’. A lady beside me had spotted it too and she mentioned that she was a member of “Ireland’s only Skype book club”, hosted by her local library in Tipperary and another in Peoria, Illinois, USA. It was one of those happenstance conversations that sticks in the mind and, a couple of years later, I decided a book club based in two countries could be the basis of a good plot.
Then it struck me that I hadn’t a clue how a Skype book club worked. Was it a kind of conference call and, if so, why bother to get together physically if each member could log in from a computer at home? I couldn’t begin plotting until I’d grasped the logistics, but to my shame, I’d forgotten both the lady’s name and the town she’d said she was from.
So I took to Twitter, and tweeted #Irish #Librarians Help! What local library hosts a transatlantic book club? Twenty minutes later Twitter delivered pure gold. I had responses from libraries in Fingal and Sligo, putting me on to a library in Clonmel. I called and, once again, was blessed by happenstance: the next of the club’s quarterly meetings was scheduled for the following week, and Marie Boland, the branch librarian, invited me along.
It was wonderful and felt completely surreal. The lady I’d met in the gift shop, was there to meet me, as enthusiastic and friendly as she’d been by the carousel of cards. The logistics soon became obvious. The Irish members gathered in a room in their library while Skype contact was established on a laptop linked to a monitor on the wall. Then, at the click of a mouse, there were the club members in Illinois, seated on rows of library chairs, just as we were. There was a facilitator on either side of the ocean and people were used to the requirements of Skype. You needed to raise your hand before speaking, for example, and turning to respond to a comment from the row behind you meant strained faces on the opposite side of the ocean, where people could neither see you nor hear what you wanted to say.
I was blown away by the different takes and ideas bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic. Here was a physical instance of a book breaking boundaries: of ordinary people from different sides of the world exploring the similarities and contrasts in their shared understanding of a story. At a time when immigration issues and strained relations between ethnic groups seem to be building new and higher walls between communities, it was a heartening and exciting conversation to be part of.
Before setting out for Clonmel I’d decided to give my fictional club a classic crime story to read, and to use the detective element as a device to drive my plot. And, since my characters were established in earlier books, I certainly didn’t base them on the members of the real club. Nevertheless, The Transatlantic Book Club is a case of life directly inspiring art. It’s also a perfect example of how one should never, ever say “never” when speaking about how one writes.
(c) Felicity Hayes-McCoy
About The Transatlantic Book Club:
Eager to cheer up her recently-widowed gran, Cassie Fitzgerald persuades Lissbeg library to set up a Skype book club, linking readers on Ireland’s Finfarran Peninsula with the little US town of Resolve, where generations of Finfarran’s emigrants have settled.
But when the club decides to read a detective novel, old conflicts on both sides of the ocean are exposed, hidden love affairs come to light, and, as secrets emerge, Cassie fears she may have done more harm than good. Will the truths she uncovers about her granny Pat’s marriage affect her own hopes of finding love? Is Pat, who’s still struggling with the death of her husband, about to fall out with her oldest friend? Or could the transatlantic book club itself hold the clue to a triumphant happy ending?
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